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So, You Wanna Buy a Condo? Five Questions to Ask Before Buying

Sick of renting, but not ready to spend your Saturdays on a lawn mower? Often featuring desirable locations, minimal maintenance, and smaller price tags than single-family homes, it’s no wonder young homebuyers find condos attractive. But living in a condo can present some unique challenges. Ask yourself these questions to make sure a condo living is right for you.

Are the condo fees worth it?

Condos are clusters of individually-owned units typically sharing common walls, landscaping, and driveways. To fairly maintain these common areas, condo owners pay a monthly fee for routine and emergency maintenance including lawn mowing, snow plowing, painting, and roofing repairs.

While freedom from yard work can be a perk, condo fees—which can be several hundred dollars—will take a bite out of your budget. Plus, most condo associations only maintain property from the walls out. That means when a bathroom pipe bursts, you still have to play plumber.

Can you afford an assessment?

While monthly condo fees cover ongoing maintenance and contributions to a reserve fund for small emergency repairs, condo associations may assess separate fees for unexpected expenses or to fund major property improvements like repaving.

In a condo association I once lived, the association charged $150 additional one month to cover the previous winter’s higher-than-normal snow plowing expenses and $200 another month to cover pool repairs. While hopefully a few hundred dollars won’t throw off your entire budget, if you buy a condo, be prepared for fluctuating or increasing condo fees.

Can you play by the rules?

Every condo association has rules. While some associations’ rules may provide owners with most of the liberties of owning a stand-alone residence, other associations’ rules can be restrictive—or downright bizarre. Every association is different, but examples of rules you might find include: no dogs, no window air conditioners, no kids, no late-night laundry, or no flags or outdoor decorations.

Associations can sue over violations, but neighbors can make your life miserable even without getting lawyers involved. The bottom line? Read the condo documents (which include association rules) carefully before purchasing a unit. And if your style is easily cramped, you may want to avoid condos all together.

Does a condo fit your lifestyle?

Condos make ideal homes for singles and couples who lead busy lives and don’t spend much time at home and homeowners who want to spend less time and energy on maintenance. For those who want a private yard, to host large gatherings, or make a project out of dramatically refurbishing their living space, a condo isn’t the ideal spot. Consider your lifestyle—both now and in a few years—and make sure a condo is the right fit.

Is a condo the right investment?

It’s not uncommon for young home-buyers to find condos that are significantly smaller—and more affordable—than even the smallest single family homes. While a small condo can be an affordable way to get out of renting and begin building equity in your home, it has to be the right condo.

The rumor that condos do not appreciate as fast as single-family homes is false; according to the National Association of Realtors condos have routinely outpaced single-family homes in appreciation. Unlike houses, however, a condo’s value is closely linked to the association fee.

Newer condos require less maintenance and may have lower fees, but those fees will go up as the units age. Similarly, if banks foreclose upon multiple units in an association, the remaining owners may be stuck with splitting those units’ fees. It’s important to consider myriad variables affecting the price and potential of any piece of real estate, and condos are no exception. Choose wisely, and a condo could not only be the perfect place to call your first home, but a sound investment, too.

Are you a homeowner that considered both condos and single-family houses? Which did you choose, and why?

Ready to go house-hunting? Save time, money, and aggravation by lining up your financing first with a mortgage pre-approval. Read my post on how to get no-obligation mortgage quotes online.

Editor’s Note: Thanks to Emily Starbuck Gerson and the team over at Taking Charge—the blog of CreditCards.com—for publishing my guest post on planning for lost credit cards.

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.

Comments

  1. I bought an aging condo with decent appreciation, however, the maintenance and repair costs for my unit are killing me. (Upstairs unit leaked onto mine, causing a ceiling cave-in, at the same time, another unit’s kitchen drainpipe was also leaking and was fixed while my ceiling was open.)

    Caveat emptor. If you can’t handle the stress or hassle of construction work, be prepared to stay a renter.

  2. Condos have all the disadvantages of renting and owning. You’re financially responsible for all maintenance and repairs (by yourself or through the HOA), yet you’re also attached to noisy, stinky neighbors who don’t think that any rules apply to them.